A few years ago, I compared SSION to Marcel Duchamp, the French-American painter and sculptor who turned the art scene upside down when he submitted a urinal, titled “Fountain,” for exhibition in New York in 1917. The piece was rejected, which sealed its fate as a harbinger for new ways of looking at art, and at the world at large.
SSION, the recording name of N.Y.C. pop artist and video director Cody Critcheloe, is also a painter — and a remarkable one at that — but that’s not what prompted me to connect those dots. Like Duchamp, Critcheloe has a punk sense of humor, led by a sharp curiosity. Not so much of the “what if” variety, but more “why the heck not?” A SSION video is a force unto itself: fourth walls are spectacularly broken, storytelling is carried by meticulously coded detail, and screen-time blessed with a cast of beguiling characters plucked from the art, music, and fashion scenes that Critcheloe orbits.
It’s Critcheloe's singular eye that feels Duchampian to me — and that bears repeating because, while we live in a time of visual literacy, few of his peers are inclined to build worlds that shake up ways of seeing like he does. His video works are designed for repeat viewings, with many layers and details that reveal themselves over time, including nods to the various screens that mediate our lives. It's why he's had so many stars — from Kylie Minogue to Perfume Genius to Robyn — come knocking at his door for videos. If more proof of his visionary status was needed, a lost art film that New York fashion label Hood By Air commissioned him to make, starring Mykki Blanco in peak psychedelic mode, finally surfaced this summer.
There were a handful of years when Critcheloe thought he’d shelved SSION, a pop project he first started in Kansas City way back in 2003, to focus on life in the director’s chair. But, happily for us, his musical itch returned. 2018 will see the release of a brand new album, titled O, and The FADER has the first taste right here: a short film that maniacally illustrates the cyclic nature of the music industry via the album's first two songs, “Big As I Can Dream” and “Comeback.” If you haven't yet seen it, watch it below; it is both a delight, and a mind-fuck.
I sat down with Critcheloe one frigid afternoon in November to talk about his return — and that cow costume. We met in a studio in Brooklyn where a small team of friends, including the video's DOP Alex Gvojic, were busy adding the final magical touches to the new video. Critcheloe was casual in a cap and sportswear, a little bleary-eyed — weeks of DIY go into each and every video, from painting backgrounds to learning dance routines to post-production — but nonetheless excited to be back where he belongs.
One of the things I love about SSION videos is the fluid sense of movement — you’re always taking the viewer through multiple transitions and scenes. As a director, why are you drawn to that constant evolution?
All the videos, they do have that kind of movement. It's storytelling. Wanting to tell a story, like making a short. I'm just not into videos that are sort of like fashion pieces where it's based around different looks and just cool scenarios. And even when I try to simplify it like that, it never really happens.
Especially with this song, it sort of gives itself to it, you know? Just the way that the song is put together in kind of a collage way, I feel like that's why [the video] is moving like that. Maybe this video moves in more of a circle than a lot of the other ones. It lays out like the past, the present, and the future in a weird way. It's got the teen heartthrob at the beginning who also resurfaces at the end. He's the person that I'm casting to play me.
What was the idea behind this new video?
With this one, it was sort of the synopsis for the whole album, you know? As I make videos for a record, it kinda unfolds in this weird way where I try not to get too specific with what it's going to be. I finished the album and then I started doing a lot of painting, just because I was frustrated [with] wanting to find someone to put it out and figure out a way to fund the videos or whatnot. Painting was the easiest way to [deal with it], because you don't have to rely on anyone else. You can just do it by yourself, you know? And so when I started painting, it sort of [became] about the songs. These three characters presented themselves, and then that worked its way into this video. I kept thinking about the cow thing and that Pink Floyd album cover. That kind of stuck around. And then I read the Bob Fosse biography, which I loved, and so that was present. It's kind of just like a collage of all those things, really.
What was it about the Pink Floyd cow that piqued your interest?
When I first started doing SSION in 2003, it was like a punk performance troupe — like Suckdog, like Lisa Carver style, GG Allin style — and I would dress like a cow. It was me and two chicks and we all had barnyard animal outfits. I just thought [the Atom Heart Mother cover] was a cool cover. When you get to do your own videos, you get to trust this instinct or impulse and you don't have to articulate it in a way. Whereas when you're making videos for other people, you really have to explain why a cow needs to be there, you know? Whereas with me, I'm just like, It feels right.
You've worked with so many pop faves in the past few years. What do you think pop needs more of right now?
I just want something a little bit more uplifting, and celebratory. Even though it's not necessarily a time for that, I feel like it is. Even though I feel like the only way to be taken seriously as a gay artist right now is to deal in trauma. I mean, I get it and I'm not against it; I just wanted to do something that was a little more fun.
I make a record every four years, and so it's kinda like this psychic thing where it's like, well, it's gonna play out your life. You're gonna be performing it every night. What kind of energy do you wanna bring to people and take home? All those things come into play and ultimately, you know, I wanna connect with people and raise them up. But then again, everything I do — even if it's kinda funny, or done in this way that's a little bit camp — there's always a sadness to it. That's the only way it's good. There's always a darkness to what's happening behind it.
“Sometimes I feel like songwriting, making videos, all of it is a form of witchcraft in a way. You’re pulling together all these different sorts of people, all these different sorts of energies.” —SSION
The way you make music videos feels like a queering of the form. Rather than one linear narrative, there are many, and they spring from the bringing together of so many seemingly incongruous people and things. It's the energy of these juxtapositions that propels the storytelling. Which brings to mind the film director John Waters.
Totally — it's all about those details that are super-specific to you that, at the end of the day, make it all work. I feel like making pop music, it's all about that impulse and being intuitive, and being able to trust it. But I think with songwriting, I'm much more intimidated by it. Whereas, visually, I feel extremely confident. Sometimes I feel like songwriting, making videos, all of it is a form of witchcraft in a way. You're pulling together all these different sorts of people, all these different sorts of energies, and being able to pull that through a singular vision but have everyone shine and do their thing.
I get crazy superstitious when I'm doing things like that. Like even the house that you're staying in while you're making the video. [If the energy isn’t right, I’m always like,] Oh god, I hope this isn't starting to seep into the video. And if it is, then how can you embrace it or make it work, you know? So it's kind of a nerve-wracking thing. This video was the most fun I'd ever had making a video before, it was incredible. I had so much fun.
Why was that, do you think?
It was the first time [in a long time that] I'd done something in Kansas City with my old crew. One of my closest friends is Megan [Mantia], who I've been working with on videos since 2006. She recently moved out to L.A., and she was a producer on the Grizzly Bear video. It was her and this guy Zach [Van Benthusen], who was my roommate way back in the day. And then Shannon Michalski, [who plays] one of the girls in the glasses at the very end, we went to college together; she was with the oldest version of SSION. So it was just this amazing thing where like, that's my family, you know? I'm closer with those people, my Kansas City crew, than I am my actual family. So it was this amazing thing of having them, having people from L.A. involved, people from New York. It just created this whole new dynamic.
It was touching because people in Kansas City really want SSION to happen again. It was really sweet and endearing just how many people came out of the woodwork to give us free spaces, or give us free help. To pull it off was this really fun, amazing experience that I hadn't had in so long.
It has been a minute since you've been in artist mode.
Well, because I went through this whole thing where I thought I wasn't gonna do music anymore. It wasn't this intentional thing — I turned 30 and all of a sudden I was like, I don't wanna… It's so silly, this is so not like me, this is so not a punk rock mindset to have. But I really went through this thing where I was like, Oh, I'm too old to be doing this. I wanna be taken seriously. I'll be a director, that's a serious thing to do.
When you took a break from your own music, what did you learn from making all those videos for pop royalty?
I mean, the cool thing about it was — I'm really proud of it — I never got an agent. I was never like, I'm gonna be the biggest director in the world! I only did videos for people that I really liked. And it was kind of a situation where if I was doing a video for someone, I wasn't even having to play the game of submitting a treatment against 10 other directors. They sought me out for a very specific thing, and we did something together. So I really lucked out — people like Perfume Genius, or Robyn, they kinda just let me do my thing. It was such a cool experience getting to work with rad artists. I like their music, and I like them as people. You know, I never felt like I was, with any of those people, really sacrificing what I would wanna do. And that's crazy. It was cool to get to bring them into my world, but also, I got to up the ante. Work with bigger budgets, work with a bigger crew, and actually figure out what it meant to be a director.
Is there anything from that experience you’re now incorporating into your return as an artist?
I try to not waste any time. And it's hard when you're singing it, starring in it, and you're also trying to direct it. I try to just know exactly what I wanna do.
How do you do that?
I don't know! Just making sure everyone's feeling as good as possible. Even though sometimes it gets really intense. I remember when we did that Perfume Genius video, it was a five-day shoot. We didn't sleep. That's nuts, but he was so down for it. I remember afterwards, he's like, “I got back home and I literally felt like I had been on an acid trip.”
“You know who I really hope sees this video? Tyler the Creator. His videos are just like next-level amazing.” —SSION
What made you decide you wanted to be an artist again? Make videos for yourself again?
I never fully stopped writing. But I think a real turning point was when I met Sam Mehran. He used to be in Test Icicles with Dev [Hynes]. I went to see friends play at Glasslands. There wasn't an opening act, so Dev was DJing, and I remember Sam had a guitar plugged directly into the soundboard. There wasn't a lot of people there. He had this huge mop of hair and was just shredding and hysterically laughing the whole time he was doing it. I was just like, Who is that guy? He's so magical!
Then I found out that Nick [Weiss] knew him through Lauren [Devine]. And then me and Sam started hanging out and I remember we spent two weeks just watching music videos, talking about music. We just really connected, and so we decided we were gonna try to write something, and this was the first thing that we did, “Comeback.” He had this guitar riff, and then I did the first verse and the chorus and then I kinda just set it aside. I got distracted by probably making someone else's video or something. And then Nick and I were working on music. I played him ["Comeback"] and he was like, “Oh my god, that's so good, we should do something with it.” And then together we built the whole song. I was like, “I really want the chorus to have a Kylie [Minogue]-type baseline, something that's up, and so we sped it up a bit. And then added this sort of nasty digital hardcore at the end. We kinda treated the song itself like a mixtape, you know? Like throwing things in the pot to make it crazy.
I wanted to return to Bob Fosse. What about his biography grabbed you?
He was a director but he came from a performance background — he was a dancer, singer, whatever. And there was this part in [the biography] where he was talking about making Cabaret, and how it was a lot of fighting with the studio because he had a vision for keeping things really dark. And I mean, it's brilliantly shot, so ahead of its time. There's this one section in it where he like, they have this top-of-the-line costume designer [but] he's not getting along with her, so he calls his wife, and he's like, “Actually you should just come here and do this.” And there's this part where it's talking about Liza getting ready to do that really famous scene. And his wife is like, “Bob, take off your vest, just put that on her.” And that became this really iconic thing, just his vest. And I was like so moved by it, I was like, God, that would never happen now!
He would insist that all the actors were there [to watch the rushes] — which is a big no-no — because he was so intent on it being like a gang. He was like, “No, Liza should be here, I want her to see it.” And we're gonna chain smoke through this and we're gonna talk about it the whole time, you know? I remember reading that on a plane, and — maybe it was the high altitude — crying from it. I was like, That's why I do this. That kind of camaraderie that you get from this.
Reading that book turned me onto All That Jazz, the movie that he did. It's hard not to see yourself in that sort of situation. I love that beginning sequence when he's doing the auditions. Just the way it's shot — and he has an actor basically playing himself as a speed freak who's chain smoking and kind of like a womanizer.
What else are you working on?
This is the main thing. And it feels amazing to be just focused back in on this. I’ve had a few offers, and it looks like we're gonna do a video for another artist in December. But even that I'm really trying to steer clear because I just wanna [do music] 100%. When that urge is there, you kinda have to respect it.
You know who I really hope sees this video? Tyler the Creator. I hope he loves it. I think him and Róisín Murphy are my two favorite video directors. They're the best. I mean, Tyler would probably just be like, “What the fuck?” I love him so much. His videos are just like next-level amazing. He’s so good.
Last but not least: What's it like to work with Freckle?
Ed [Droste] and Freckle were buds. I thought Freckle was amazing when I met her, but it was Ed's idea [to cast her in the "Losing All Sense" video]. He was like, “Oh, I really want Freckle in the video, can you write her in?” I was like, “Yeah, totally.” It was so cool to bring all those people out to Kansas City.
Freckle is so fun. It's like you're with Bette Davis, Stockard Channing, 24/7. She's very punk though, too. When we were shooting, it was so hot in Kansas City — it was over 100 degrees. The humidity was insane. We would shoot Freckle and then she would just fall asleep on the ground. Later, it'd be like, “Okay, we're ready for you.” And she'd just be ready to go.